There are two basic schools of thought about art's relationship with politics. One--"art for art's sake"--sees art purely as an abstract, hermetic expression of the human imagination, with no connection to political or social reality, and to ask art to reflect society is to debase it.

The other school advocates political engagement on the part of the artist. This party of engagés, as they are known by the French, believes that art, like all human culture, is an unconscious expression of a society's unspoken values and that the artists have a responsibility to use their talents to reform society.

Art and Politics

In this November 22, 2003 interview with Susan Burton entitled "Art and Politics," renowned professor Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, and Radiohead's Thom Yorke discuss some of these issues, particularly in light of today's political circumstances.

In his Thirties essay, "Art and Politics," leftist author Howard Fast, a former Communist and author of Spartacus, Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, and April Morning, takes issue with future Hollywood Ten victim Albert Maltz over the issue of "socialist realism."

Political Art or Propaganda?

When does political art become mere propaganda? This Yahoo Art History directory on Propaganda and Political Art provides a good starting point for critical thinking.

Political Cartoons

Of course, political cartoons are where we see art and politics colllide every day in our newspapers.

And what are political cartoons if not a subset of political humor?

Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was America's greatest political cartoonist. With his pen alone he smashed the Tweed Ring and created Uncle Sam, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, and our current image of Santa Claus, when he illustrated Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (a.k.a "The Night Before Christmas") in 1869.

Harper's Weekly has an excellent site, with Nast's art.

This biography shows how Nast's pen was mightier than the sword and how this artist shaped his time.

This site emphasizes his German heritage and has a fine selection of links.

The Thomas Nast Society has resources for serious scholars.

David Low

Born in New Zealand, David Low (1891-1963) is considered the foremost political cartoonist of the twentieth century. More than any other cartoonist, he warned the world about Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and his directness and outrage are an inspiration to artists today.

This archive offers one of his most haunting images--the ghosts of the European dead coming back to haunt the Nazi defendants of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Pablo Picasso

Considered the preeminent artist of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) defined post-World War I modernism in the graphic arts, in the same way that James Joyce did for narrative fiction, Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot did for poetry, and Igor Stravinsky did for symphonic music.

His masterpiece--considered the greatest single work of art in the twentieth century--is the nightmarish Guernica, depicting the horrific Luftwaffe bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

Guernica: Testimony of War has an in-depth look at this magnificent scream of outrage.

Picasso's "Secret" Guernica explores some of the hidden meanings of the painting.

George Grosz

Although not as revered as Picasso, George Grosz (1893-1959) is also considered one of the towering figures of modern art. He is not only the father of Dada, and therefore the source of much of what we now take for granted in absurdist and surrealist art--more than any other artist, he recorded the horrifying self-destruction of European civilization in the First and Second World Wars.

He is the great chronicler of post-World War I German nihilism and the death of Weimar Germany. He watched Hitler being born and tried to warn the world, to no avail. In the end, he witnessed too much truth and died a broken man from alcoholism.

But to this day, few if any artists can match the power and social insight of his work, ranging from Going to Work (1912), with its depiction of the bourgeois' futile, Sisyphean efforts, to the unforgettable The Survivor (1944), with its depiction of a bloody, broken postwar Europe lying in the rubble, its limbs splayed in the shape of a swastika.

"Grosz considered himself a propagandist of the social revolution."

Politics and Comic Books

Comic books are, if nothing else, a very accurate mirror of American society, and we can see how America has been changing according to how political themes have been expressed in comic books. Comics often provide a medium in which popular opinions can find expression when blocked by the mainstream media.

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby--Captain America

In his 2003 memoir The Comic Book Makers, Joe Simon captured the moment in 1940 in which he envisioned a superhero to fight the greatest villain of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler: "Then the idea struck home: here was the arch villain of all time. Adolf Hitler and his Gestapo bully-boys were real. There had never been a truly believable villain in comics. But Adolf Hitler was [a]live, hated by more than half of the world...I could smell a winner. All that left to do was to devise a long underwear superhero to stand up to him."

An ardent anti-Nazi, Simon tried to rouse a sleeping American public by creating Captain America, a muscular champion of democracy who battled fascists everywhere. He then chose Jack Kirby to draw him.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg in the Lower East Side of New York to poor immigrant Jewish Austrian parents, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was by far the most influential comic book artist of the twentieth century. After working with Simon again on the Captain America pastiche Fighting American in the Fifties, Kirby went on in 1961 to co-create with Stan Lee the Fantastic Four in 1961, thereby ushering in the Marvel Revolution.

Kirby shocked isolationists in 1940 with his cover of Captain America #1, which depicted Captain America smashing Adolf Hitler across the jaw with a hard right cross and sending the Fuehrer flying across the room.

Spain Rodriguez--Trashman

Spain politicized comics as never before in the late Sixties by making his radical superhero Trashman an avowed enemy of the established order. In the era of the 1970 Kent State murders and the 1968 Chicago police riot, Trashman fought to the death with the brutal fascists who were imposing a police state on a chaotic, near-future America. Trashman's enemies staged horrific helicopter attacks on innocent civilians in the liberated territories àla Vietnam, and the ruling class enjoyed hideous black-tie cannibalistic banquets, feasting on "long pig"--a symbol of the rich devouring the poor economically. Trashman responded in kind with the cry of, "Eat leaden death!"

Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams

In the early Seventies, DC Comic writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neal Adams introduced social relevance to superheroes, and their Green Arrow/Green Lantern stories have become classics. Adams caused a sensation when he depicted then-Vice President Spiro Agnew as a ranting villain on this 1971 Green Lantern cover. Today Neal Adams tells the story of how in retaliation, officials from the state of Florida threatened to forbid distribution of DC publications in their state if DC ever attempted such a caricature again. Evidently they had never heard of Thomas Nast.

This November 19, 2003 Village Voice article, "American Gods" by R.C. Baker, describes how comic book artists Neal Adams and Alex Ross have used the medium to criticize the shortcomings of the American dream.


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